A Visit to Plage de Plaisance Nature Reserve, Charente Maritime

As the name suggests, Plage de Plaisance is best known for its beach, which seems to draw in tourists and locals alike. Walk just a few minutes away from the beach, however, and you’ll find yourself entering another world – a haven of wildlife the likes of which I have seen nowhere else.

Despite visiting three times in as many months – and all of those visits being in “high season” between June and August – each time we had the reserve almost to ourselves. The handful of visitors that arrived each day did so simply to bake in the sunshine, while the sand dunes just behind the beach remained untouched.

In truth, at times it felt like we were the only people for miles. This made things all the more perfect, as we didn’t have to contend with the usual dog walkers, cyclists and screaming children; instead the wildlife remained undisturbed, leading to some fantastic close-up experiences.

If you’re heading to France and are a lover of wildlife, you could do a lot worse than journeying to this virtually unknown wildlife spot. Here are just a few of the things we found in a few hours at the Plage de Plaisance nature reserve in Charente Maritime, France…

Green Tree Frogs

On arrival, after several hours on the road, we visited the stand-alone public toilets. Built out of concrete, positioned in the free carpark, and far from attractive I hadn’t even got my wildlife watching kit out of the car. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when on opening the door I found three chunky green treefrogs sat on the wall!

Not only was I surprised to find amphibians within a stones throw of the beach, where surely the salty air must play havoc with their skin, but I certainly didn’t expect to find them in a public toilet. Yet here they were – fat and healthy and beautiful.

Treefrogs in France

Praying Mantis

I’m a sucker for a praying mantis – always have been. I’ve even kept them as pets in the past. As someone who is equally interested in invertebrates as I am more “showy” species I try to keep my eyes open when walking through grassland. All too often something moves as you get close.

At one point it looked like a tiny piece of straw blew across the footpath infront of me – but the motion wasn’t quite right. I bent down to investigate further and found this beautiful little European Mantis (Mantis religiosa). It was a hot and sunny day, so he was running at full speed, and I had some difficulties controlling him for a few photos before be was released back into the countryside.

Baby European praying mantis

While this certainly wasn’t the last European mantis we saw during our time in France, it certainly was the first. Perhaps more interestingly, it was the only straw-coloured specimens we found the entire time. It was also the only one we saw here in amongst the yellowing, dry grass of the sand dunes. Perhaps he had specifically chosen this colouration to help his camouflage? I’m sure that other people paying less attention would have passed straight by without even noticing this fantastic little predator just inches from their feet.

Green Lizards

In Southern France we found that there were Wall Lizards everywhere. In every village, on almost every stone wall, you’d see at least one or two. Beautiful and fascinating, but not exactly unusual.

The European Green Lizard, however, is an altogether more impressive species. Rarer. Shyer. Rarely heading into towns or villages; this species likes to dwell far away from people. As soon as they see a person they’ll either freeze or – if you’re too close – run off so fast you’ll wonder what just moved in the distance.

But Plage de Plaisance was alive with green lizards – dozens of them. Creep along slowly, like a ninja, keeping low to minimize your shadow, and with a little luck and patience you too may stumble across one of these lizards. And when you do, all that effort will be worthwhile. Green lizards are surprisingly large for mainland Europe, being well over a foot in length. They’re also the most amazing iridescent green colour. Be careful though; the slightest sniff, or cough, or fidget and they’ll disappear into the undergrowth like magic.

Coypu

Once upon a time many European countries bred coypu for their fur. As one might expect, a few either escaped or were released. This was certainly the case in the UK, where coypu thrived for several decades before being wiped out in the sixties.

In France, however, the coypu still runs free; a little bit of South America in Europe. The nature reserve here at Plage de Plaisance is criss-crossed with brackish dykes and streams – presumably cut out as a flood defence in days gone by. Absent-mindedly strolling alongside one in the heat of the day I saw something out of the corner of my eye. For a moment my brain stalled; it simply couldn’t work out what it was seeing. Then finally the right connection was made – coypu!

Within moments the cat-sized rodent disappeared beneath the surface of the water. So we sat down and waited in silence. By now the full force of the Mediterranean sun was bearing down on us, every minute another opportunity for sun burn.

But wait we did – and eventually our patience was rewarded. Some five minutes or so later the coypu popped up right where he’d disappeared, before swimming over the hole in the bank we hadn’t noticed, and disappearing into his subterranean lair. What an experience!

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